An article in the New York Times (which you can tell is about the only newspaper I read) caught my eye today. The article detailed the shifting population in Harlem, where blacks are making up a smaller percentage of the population, while whites and other races begin to move into Upper Manhattan’s most historic enclave.
Most notably, the article touched on Central Harlem, where I live, ultimately making this entire issue about me! Central Harlem, a place where in the 1950’s, roughly everyone in the area was black, is now about 60% black with whites hovering around the 10-15% mark.
Central Harlem is the most active part of the Greater Harlem area. Sitting at the top end of Central Park, Central Harlem offers access to all of Central Park North’s amenities and sites, is the location of the most burgeoning part of the famed 125th Street, and it is home to many of the schools, office buildings and other signs of Harlem’s commerce and community.
But what Central Harlem isn’t anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time, is all about black people. I came to New York City in 2002, living just West of Central Harlem at nearby Columbia University. I always frequented Central Harlem when I was in school. It was a way to get away from the uptight normalcy of an Ivy League institution and reap the benefits that a black community has to offer black people and really, all of its visitors.
I definitely frequented Central Harlem to get my bi-weekly, if not weekly, haircuts on 125th Street.
Of course, that was the same street where I did the majority of my shopping so that I could experience the styles of my people at prices my people could afford.
Food was another big reason to come to Central Harlem while I was in school. While Columbia offered traditional dining options, as well as a few high-brow events, they didn’t exactly provide the smothered pork chops and homemade macaroni & cheese that Amy Ruth’s or Sylvia’s had to offer. Not to mention all of the fast food spots of my ghetto youth that weren’t typical of the Morningside Heights area in which Columbia University resides.
And on the rare occasion that I went to church during school, which was more often than I would have predicted, naturally, Central Harlem was the place to be for a good, down to earth, service and prayer.
Even as the population continues to shift, none of that is going any anytime soon. Sure, there are fewer KFC’s and Chicken shacks on 125th Street, but for the most part, churches, barber shops and southern-style restaurants are here to stay for a long, long time. Heck, I was just walking by Amy Ruth’s the other day when I saw about 30 people deep in 30-degree weather—proof positive of the restaurant’s, and the neighborhoods, resistance to gentrification.
Still, gentrification persists, and the numbers suggest that it’s on the rise. According to the NYTimes article, in 1990, just 672 whites occupied Central Harlem. As of 2008, there are over 13,800 whites. Many might say that the rise in white people, and other races, in Central Harlem has accounted for the significant drop of black people in the neighborhood. In 2008, just 77,000 black people were documented in Central Harlem, making up just 62% of the population, whereas in 1990, blacks made up nearly 90% of Central Harlem’s population.
However, displacement is an unlikely cause of the decline in the area’s black population. According to the article, there are several other reasons that could explain the decline. One of which is the fact that black people migrating to New York City don’t have to live in Harlem anymore. Take me for example; I came to New York living on the trendy campus of an Ivy League institution. Other black students are probably in similar situations, while middle-class, black college-grads moving to the city don’t feel the pressures of segregation that once caused Harlem to become the capital of Black America.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that gentrification hasn’t played a role in the declining black population in Harlem. White people of wealth wouldn’t move to Harlem if the area wasn’t able to offer similar amenities and services that the rest of Manhattan has. Within a 3-block radius of my apartment alone are at least 5 newly constructed condominium buildings, most of which are ownership units with white residents who can afford condos at prices $300,000 and up. There’s a pet grooming service on Fredrick Douglass and 115th, a business that I’m just assuming doesn’t have a predominantly black clientele. And just around the corner from me, a brand new, high-end, grocery store is being built, one that will far exceed the prices of my two favorite area-grocers, Fine Fare and Pathmark.
But with gentrification, with the influx of whites, and with the influx of money, the question always arises, “Is this a good thing?”
I could easily say I’m on the fence on this one, but instead, I will go ahead and take a stand. While the quality of life in Central Harlem, and Harlem as a whole, is sure to rise as the people with more money and more influence enter the neighborhood, it does black people no good if they aren’t around to see it. Certainly, blacks aren’t going anywhere for a long time, but it’s bound to happen. With all of these historic buildings, beautiful brownstones, and burgeoning centers of capitalism, blacks don’t own a sliver of them. And without black ownership, black interest is the least of the area’s concerns, and eventually, that’s going to mean black residents will realize that, if the rental prices don’t bring it to their attention first, and will choose to or have to go elsewhere.
That’s a long ways away though. It takes time to get rid of us. We’re not going to let the history, community and livelihood go away as quickly as some outside forces would like to see it all dissipate. I would say we won’t let it all go without a fight, but I have yet to see a contender take the ring. I’ll try not to stand idly by, but I’ll need a little bit of help.
If you or anyone else has any ideas on how to bring ownership back to Harlem, so that we can welcome gentrification and the good it brings, while keeping the pillars that have been in this area for 100 years now, please comment below, and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.